Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal1
Bernard McGinn


The relation between mysticism and spirituality has long been a topic of discussion. The links between the two are rooted in the history of the use of terms like mysticus and spiritualis in Christianity since at least the second century. Spiritualitas is an ancient term, first appearing in the fourth century and based on the frequent use of pneumatikos/spiritualis in the New Testament.2 The Greek qualifier mystikos and its derivatives do not occur in the New Testament, but from ca. 200 C. E. Christian authors began to use mystikos/mysticus to signify the hidden realities of their beliefs and practices.3 By about 500 C. E., the mysterious author who wrote under the pseudonym Dionysius had invented the term mystical theology (theologia mystikê), although “mysticism” as a stand-alone substantive is more modern, not used before the seventeenth century at the earliest.4 These two language-fields, the mystical and the spiritual, became so intertwined in the course of history as to seem almost necessarily related, however one understands their meanings. If we take spirituality as a broad term signifying the whole range of beliefs and practices by which the Christian church strives to live out its commitment to the Spirit present in the Risen Christ (1 Cor. 6:14–20; 2 Cor. 3:17), then we can understand mysticism as the inner and hidden realization of spirituality through a transforming consciousness of God’s immediate presence. Mysticism, or more precisely, the mystical element within Christian spirituality, is the goal to which spiritual practices aim. It is a personal appropriation, but not an individualistic one, because it is rooted in the life of the Christian community and the grace mediated through that community and its sacraments and rituals. If this way of construing the relationship between spirituality and mysticism makes sense, it is clear that the investigation of the nature of mysticism, especially the role of what is usually called mystical experience, is an important part of the study of spirituality. The following essay argues that mystical experience, while often analyzed and explored, may not be the best term for discerning the meaning of mysticism as an integral part of spirituality. My alternative proposal is to suggest that the notion of consciousness as developed by Bernard Lonergan in his analysis of human intentionality may provide a more adequate theoretical basis


Spiritus 8 (2008): 44–63 © 2008 by The Johns Hopkins University Press

the mystics themselves. is the most difficult to manage. have spoken about their own “experience. was not an expression used by mystics or students of mysticism before the nineteenth century.” to the best of my knowledge. and also one that provides a better insight into the writings of the mystics themselves. and St. This was in no sense a vision. and the word experientia in relation to encountering God achieved importance in the twelfth century. often called “mystical theology. After briefly setting out some of the problems concerning the use of mystical experience. something that would have puzzled St. at least over the past eight centuries. the philosopher Michael Oakeshott issued the sober warning: “‘Experience. that is. What we call mystical experience. Many writers on mysticism use mystical experience as the equivalent of a special form of feeling and/or perception. “mystical experience. Although the qualifier mysticus was long used by Christians. . one that is common across all religions and that exists independently of the theological constructions in which the mystics try to present it to others. Teresa and many other mystics.” As Teresa of Avila put it in her Life: “When picturing Christ in the way I have mentioned.7 From this perspective.”5 Because many mystics. even if not an academic one. . the study of mysticism seeks to free mysticism from theology as an intellectual enterprise. 45 McGinn | Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal . who insisted that they were creating theologia. books and articles have been devoted to the analysis of mystical experience. . John of the Cross. I used unexpectedly to experience a consciousness of the presence of God of such a kind that I could not possibly doubt that he was within me or that I was totally engulfed in him.” scholars have often taken it for granted that the study of the mystical element in religion should take mystical experience as a central category. a true discourse about God. Some Problems with Mystical Experience For more than a century.’ of all the words in the philosophic vocabulary. one scarcely in need of analysis because everyone knows what it means. I believe that it is called mystical theology. But did the mystics understand experientia in the same way as modern investigators? And is experience really a self-evident term? In Experience and its Modes (1933). following Dionysius. Nicholas of Cusa.”6 All too many writers who treat mystical experience seem to take experience as an unproblematic word. Meister Eckhart.for investigating mysticism. Part I of the essay will lay out the basic structure of a Lonergan-inspired theory of mystical consciousness. and it must be the ambition of every writer reckless enough to use the word to escape the ambiguities it contains. while Part II will illustrate this theory through a short investigation of three of the most noted Western Christian mystics.

both historically and theoretically.12 returning to the hint given in the passage from Teresa cited above.46 William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience. and that philosophical and theological formulas are secondary products. what the older tradition (and Teresa) usually called mystical theology. but rather the truth claims advanced in their writings and how these claims provided deeper understanding of the life of faith.1 . he concludes. whether they be constructive or comparative. and deciding. first published in 1902. like translations into another tongue. I am suggesting that her phrase about the “consciousness of the presence of God” may hint at a more adequate way of understanding the nature of mysticism.8 James allows that both feeling and thought act in determining conduct. sensation. consequent upon religious feeling. the assertion of the existence of some form of already-in-here-now-real-pure feeling or experience that can be separated out from the total intentional dynamism of knowing and loving that characterizes the human subject is in danger of implying an objectivist illusion. “that feeling is the deeper source of religion.” James says. The priority given to feeling is historically questionable because the great mystics of the Christian tradition believed that it was not their own experience (however they understood the term) that was important. rather than just an originating pure feeling. loving. not coordinate with it. but it may be questioned. James was a subtle thinker whose writings cannot be reduced to a system and I do not wish to suggest that his provoking analysis is guilty of the errors of those who believe that thought always distorts experience. The investigator of mystical consciousness attempts to analyze the writings and witnesses of mystical teachers for what they reveal about all the forms of thinking and loving in which the human subject SPIRITUS | 8. From a philosophical perspective. as a number of contemporary students of mysticism have argued. or experience easily separable from subsequent acts of thinking. presuppose immediate experience as their subjectmatter. operations after the fact.11 While it may be possible to re-formulate the language of mystical experience to avoid the dangers implicit in James and others.13 The argument developed here is that mystical consciousness is a fruitful way to conceive of the forms of special encounter with God spoken of by Christian mystics.9 “I do believe. but that in the realm of religion feelings are more determinent in grasping the essence of the phenomenon. primarily because consciousness emphasizes the entire process of human intentionality and self-presence. They are interpretive and inductive operations. not independent of what it ascertains. contains an influential analysis of mystical experience that has been seen by some as an ancestor of this approach.” Therefore. or critical.”10 This postulation of feeling as the basis for religion and mysticism and the split it suggests between experience as primary and interpretation as a secondary phenomenon has had a long history in the modern study of mysticism. “intellectual operations.

but as a goal that is both transcendent and yet immanent. adds another dimension that transforms the usual components. and loving. as noted above). Mystical consciousness. intelligence.”20 The structure of intentionality develops through four dialectically-integrated hierarchical stages of consciousness. insists that objectivity is not a matter of some direct intuition of an already-out-there-now-real (or already-in-here-now-real. and responsibility as grounding true judgments about the nature of reality and ethical choices about the proper values to be pursued in life. percep- 47 McGinn | Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal .” or reflexively and in an objectified manner through the self-appropriation of one’s acts of intending. The infinite horizon of all knowing and loving somehow becomes really “here” in a new form of awareness in what mystics call the ground. apex. or co-author. and loving. as well as the consciousness or self-presence of the agent in such acts. in mystical consciousness God is present not as an object. the implications of his transcendental method for the study of mysticism have been developed by a number of later investigators. I have learned a good deal from these works. knowing. such as The Philosophy of God and Theology. according to Lonergan. Such an approach to mystical consciousness finds an important resource in the transcendental method of the Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan. however. All forms of consciousness involve both the consciousness of the objects intended by operations of feeling. of our acts of experiencing (that is.17 Lonergan himself wrote little on mysticism. or center of the soul. “more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. but rather an issue of appropriating one’s conscious acts of attention.18 but my own adaptation of Lonergan is rather different. reasonableness.achieves self-transcendence and transformation through an encounter with God. Nevertheless. but as the transforming Other who is. the reception of inner and outer data). though there are remarks in his book Method in Theology and in several late works. the ultimate Source and final Goal. knowing.19 As he once put it: “Objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity. or “meta-consciousness” as Thomas Merton once described it. He (She) is active in the human agent as the source. not as an object to be understood or grasped.”16 In other words. Lonergan’s account of the basic structures of human knowing and loving as exercises in self-transcending can be summarized briefly: to be human is to be possessed by an unrestricted desire to know. An Approach to Mystical Consciousness Mystical consciousness makes claims beyond those put forth by the ordinary exercise of consciousness. as Augustine put it. beginning with experience. either directly and implicitly as an “I. that is.15 Meta-consciousness is the co-presence of God in our inner acts. Critical realism.14 This third element might be called a consciousness-beyond.

that call out to be tested by acts of reflection. Finally. way and therefore the activity of thinking. if unthematized. Inquiry leads to the discoveries and acts of understanding that Lonergan describes as insights. the invariant structure of human consciousness means that the corrective process itself will be an expression of that structure and therefore not essentially different or radically revisable.” that is. Reflection gives rise to the act of judgment that answers the question “Is it so?” on the basis of determining that a particular insight conforms to the evidence available. gives rise to wonder. that is.22 Peace. Lonergan’s account of general transcendental method is well known. Lonergan makes two important claims about his analysis of transcendental method. both the data of sense and the data of consciousness. when critically appropriated by the self.48 tion or sensation of data. God. © Georg Sedlmeir. hypothetical formulations. His subsequent analysis of the application of this method to the realm of religion is found in the fourth chapter of Method in Theology. to make decisions about what kind of values to cultivate and what form of life to live based upon judgments about the nature of reality. that is.21 The second claim is that the unrestricted dynamism of human consciousness means that the Infinite End. or information. The adjustments involved SPIRITUS | 8. The first is that while his own account of knowing may be incomplete and partial in many respects. postulates the existence of the Transcendent toward which all knowing and loving aims. is in some way present within our acts of knowing and loving in a real. or intelligible organizations. Data.1 . as a result of acts of critical judgment humans are drawn to ask “What should I do?. however diverse in form and language. asking questions on the level of intelligence.

Lonergan often cites the Pauline text about “God’s love being poured out in our hearts” (Rom. especially when we are dealing with the unrestricted divine gift of the God in whom infinite intelligibility and absolute love are one and the same (more on this below). I believe that the implications of Lonergan’s analysis of transcendental method support an argument that mystical consciousness is a further differentiation of religious consciousness and not some different thing. that it is not possible to analyze the distinctive transformations of the forms of intentionality present in mystical consciousness. 5:5) to indicate the basis for religious intentionality in a gift from above.29 Nevertheless. but that the gift of God’s love flooding our hearts forms the major exception. This does not mean. Is mystical consciousness a development of religious consciousness. And we have also done so as a consequence of our view that this manner of speech facilitates ecumenical discourse. this gift produces a state of being in love with God in an unrestricted way. he says that this is the rule for ordinary operations on the fourth level. If general transcendental method is further specified and differentiated in religious method.26 Furthermore. He summarizes: “We have distinguished between faith and religious beliefs. question whether love must be given either temporal or logical priority over knowing as the basic experiential root of religious conversion. however. however. not with any specific attentiveness. insight. the reasons given are a mixture of the theoretical and the practical. When asked about whether mystical works such 49 McGinn | Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal . or choice on the part of the human subject.”27 When we ask why the longing for knowledge that is identified with fundamental faith (not.23 As received in the making this transposition are significant. the gift of divine love produces a special form of knowledge called faith—“From an experience of love focused on mystery there wells forth a longing for knowledge. Religious consciousness begins with a special gift of God’s love.”28 One can. the apex animae. Lonergan insists.”24 whereas in Philosophy of God and Theology he is willing to speak of the permanent dynamic state of being in love with God as existing on a “fifth level. It takes place over the peak of the soul.”25 Lonergan insists that the gift of love is prior to all knowledge. we may ask if there is a specifically mystical form of method. Lonergan himself suggests this in allowing for what he called “mystical experience of the transcendent. the judgments that constitute religious beliefs) must be posterior to love. “Nihil amatum nisi praecognitum” (Nothing is loved unless known). We have done so as a consequence of our view that there is a realm in which love precedes knowledge. Reflecting on the Latin tag.” without trying to specify the difference between religious experience and mystical experience. Lonergan characterizes the location of this reception in rather different ways. or something different and special? Lonergan is not clear on this. In Method he says “God’s love occupies the ground and root of the fourth and highest level of man’s intentional consciousness.

Ignatius of Loyola. The direct consciousness of the presence of God. the divine presence in these acts. such as Eckhart. involves an inner perception of God different from those found in ordinary religious acts in its intensity and directness. taught that it is possible to attain awareness of the immediate presence of God even in the midst of ordinary acts of internal and external sensation (in contemplatione activus.1 . as was said of Ignatius). Christian mystics teach that although one can and should prepare for God’s coming by acts of asceticism. one in which God makes God-self co-present within all the structures of human consciousness. Such an experience of God’s presence ordinarily occurs within states of interiority. enriches and subsumes all ordinary mental operations. that is. What is essential is the transcendent dimension of the new dynamic state. even of some special kind. ecstasy. but that can be expressed as a state of loving attraction and mental awareness in the face of the divine mystery. not just the perception of data. a presence that cannot be given any content (it is not a thing). a form of life. The evidence of many mystical writings suggests that it may be possible to distinguish between the acts of reflection involved in the production of mystical writings insofar as they proceed from the subject’s own self-awareness and the same acts insofar as they involve the meta-conscious presence of the divine knowing and loving operative in the mystic. Some mystics. and Teresa. mystical consciousness is not just a gift that stops at the level of a SPIRITUS | 8. and not merely as a matter of raw experience. and the voiding of ordinary operations and the objects they intend. however. like the gift of God’s love given in the grace of religious consciousness. This is another way of saying that in the states described by Christian mystics religious consciousness as proceeding from the acts of a human subject and intending some kind of object is necessarily always intertwined with mystical consciousness. prayer. One advantage of approaching mysticism through the analysis of consciousness is that it allows us to see the mystical element of religion as a process. awareness of presence is a donation or grace. because they were attempts of reason to formulate in language the content of mystical experience of the Transcendent. the “mystical theology” that Teresa spoke about. It is not the result of one’s own efforts. Mystical witness to meta-consciousness has often involved attempts to express how the presence of God both in initial experiential consciousness. as well as in acts of knowing and loving. and the like. In Christianity mystical consciousness is always conceived of as a gift. But that doesn’t mean that the mystical experience is that.50 as those of John of the Cross were the result of insight.”30 Still. however. Lonergan responded that mystical works are like any other form of writing—“a matter of experience and understanding and judgment and verbal creativity. In the view being presented here. one can ask if a further distinction may not be called for here.

or even toward God as an object of rational reflection. There is no apprehension of God as object here. it seems that the kind of knowing by which we come to affirm something of God on the basis of our inner reception of the divine presence. as well as casting light on the kinds of transformations that ordinary knowing and loving undergo in this journey. So too there is no loving God as an object of desire. affirm. This approach suggests that on the initial pre-reflective level where the subject is grasped by the gift of God’s presence it is not possible to distinguish knowing from loving. rather. Other mystics such as Richard of St. it also involves the way in which this perception restructures the subject’s drive to understand. an interpretation that almost inevitably alters and distorts the original perception. “God is love. the divine presence becomes active in the soul’s ground of awareness.31 Most mystics have accorded some kind of priority to love. as well as the kind of loving with which we respond to this gift. It is demanded by the reception itself. are not the same. An analysis based on consciousness provides a better understanding of the relation between love and knowledge in the mystical pursuit of God. and John of the Cross reflected deeply on the similarities and differences between ordinary knowing and mystical knowing of God. This state may be described as an intensification of the gift of love given in McGinn | Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal 51 . The intellectual and affective appropriation of the new perception of God’s presence is not a secondary phenomenon. Mystical teachers such as William of Saint-Thierry. present to the subject. as the knowing and loving we direct toward limited created persons and realities. Victor and Jan van Ruusbroec explored the differences between loving created persons and loving the Uncreated Divine Lover. and deciding. This position agrees with the witness of the Christian mystics. who have taught that both knowing and loving are integral to the encounter with God. because of its unlimited and unrestricted nature. But is knowing God through co-presence the same kind of knowing as that of the philosopher or theologian who seeks to present an argued account of the divine nature and attributes? Rather. but that love involves endless yearning for the enjoyment of the beloved that can never reach fulfillment and therefore shares in infinity. because as 1 John 4:16 puts it. This appropriation involves both ordinary acts of and special perception or experience of God. that is. It can become known. but only in an indirect way as a tendency or drive. at least in all respects. not as something capable of conceptualization. but not yet explicitly known or objectified. Meister Eckhart. and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him. loving. as well as transcendentalized forms of the same intentional acts that reflect the presence of the divine by way of what Merton called meta-consciousness. and live out the gift received.32 This new affective state is conscious.” They also argue that the divine infinity is radically unknowable to the limited human mind. but only a co-presence of infinite divine love.

© Georg Sedlmeir. Ireland. judgment. 52 Stone Fort.1 . if such acts were to attempt to reduce God to a specific content of thought or object of love. “Being in love with God. The ‘more’ is the element of infinite lovingness. Kerry. Lonergan and many of the investigators who have expanded on his insights in investigating mystical consciousness have emphasized its affective nature. All love is self-surrender. As Louis Roy summarizes.”33 Differentiation (not separation) between knowing and loving begins as the subject moves from the world of immediacy to the mediation of meaning by means of conscious acts of insight. to SPIRITUS | 8. “Mystical experience occurs in an objectless consciousness and yet includes more.religious consciousness. and decision. but being in love with God is being in love without limits or qualifications or conditions or reservation. Lonergan said. that is. affirming. If in God infinite lovingness is one with infinite intelligibility.”34 Yet we can ask if infinite lovingness is all there is to the divine gift. loving and choosing? To be sure. acts that are selfconscious and therefore potentially open to self-reflection. is being in love in an unrestricted fashion. as experienced. which is also without specific content. Speaking of the latter. are not both aspects of God’s reality made present in the new objectless awareness and therefore capable of becoming co-present in subsequent acts of understanding.

” although he did not try to integrate its potential into his analysis of consciousness. Knowing and Loving in Three Mystics A brief glance at three major mystics of the Western Christian tradition will show how their endeavors to explore mystical consciousness incorporated both McGinn | Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal 53 . But are there other modes of approaching the intellective side of mystical meta-consciousness? Lonergan himself several times evoked the mystical metaphor of the “cloud of unknowing. Through this intellectual effort God’s unknowable infinity becomes co-present in the mystic’s mind as a new and higher form of inverse insight.” that is. but a thematized awareness of the truth that the human drive to know is grounded in the constant pursuit of the God who always remains unknowable in his infinite mystery. a negative act of understanding in line with what mystics since Augustine (who first used the term) called “learned ignorance.40 The mystic therefore both loves.”39 A transcendental inverse insight has no specific content.” that is. for example. Dionysius. Eckhart. often do not make sense in the world of customary Aristotelian discourse and logic. but we might conceive of the intellective aspect of mystical metaconsciousness as the ground for a form of transcendental inverse insight. In both Insight and Method Lonergan spoke of “inverse insight. however. It is not a concept. consciously and unrestrictedly.”37 I propose another way of thinking about the intellective dimension of mystical consciousness. which. such a move would abandon the realm of the mystical and threaten to subvert the very ground of its distinctive intentionality. and Cusa. These concepts. risks the danger of giving an “object-like content to mystical consciousness. on the basis of the gift of God’s direct presence in the ground of awareness. because they have a different origin from our ordinary insights. but the “learned ignorance” that is the product of intense efforts to thematize the limits of all knowing (see. and consciously and unrestrictedly knows and affirms the horizon of divine unknowability through the practice of docta ignorantia. This is not mere.” “traditionally identified with the apophatic state.35 In reflecting on the intellective dimension of mystical awareness James Price distinguished between “bare consciousness.”38 Lonergan restricted the term to the realm of ordinary cognition. or “ignorant” ignorance. that is.” and “mystical consciousness.affirm the final validity of any idea of God. apprehending “that in some fashion the point is that there is no point. one that both utilizes an aspect of Lonergan’s transcendental method and that also reflects a central element in Christian mysticism. in his eyes. the notion of docta ignorantia. oneness with the ground of consciousness. to name but a few). though naturally when he or she brings this insight to expression words and concepts must be employed.36 Louis Roy questioned this distinction.” which he described as “a state in which an explicit awareness of union with the transcendent emerges.

and the soul loves to be indistinguished. Eckhart’s teaching certainly expresses the priority of intellect in many ways. including the pure spontaneity of love: “He who dwells in the goodness of his nature.” Rather. but rather that he exists because he understands. German Sermon 82 comments on this transcendental mode of loving by noting that God is Nothing (niht). dwells in God’s love. Eckhart. Eckhart discussed this identity in terms of love as well as intellect.” Eckhart spoke of such a mode of life in a number of ways.”47 In his Latin Sermon XXIX he went even further in exploring the role of the mutually-informing transcendental predicates of intelligere-esse-unum (understanding-existence-oneness) as ways of expressing God’s indistinction. and love has no why. for example. given the fact that almost all Christian mystics have dealt with the roles of both knowing and loving in the encounter with God.41 First. 1328). In his Parisian Questions Eckhart reversed Thomas Aquinas’s teaching on esse as the most appropriate term for God by saying. “I demonstrate that it is not my present view that God understands because he exists. is not-other than the non-duality of intellect as identical with God in the ground. however. His Commentary on Wisdom says that “Everything that loves what is indistinct and indistinction hates what is distinct. the life lived out of an awareness of indistinction from God is spoken of as a life “without a why. If true knowing is becoming absolutely one with what is known. to be and to become one with God. or Indistinct Existence (esse indistinctum/lûter wesen). he is beyond all speech. SPIRITUS | 8. only because he is most properly Pure Intellect. unmixed and perfectly detached. neither “this nor that that one can speak about. Meister Eckhart (d. a word of caution.”44 This kind of “whyless” love is described as pure. “He is a being above all being. He is a being without a mode of being. has been held up as a paragon of intellective mysticism. like Thomas Aquinas. but the Dominican also preached and discussed loving God throughout his works.”43 Since God exists “without a why” (sunder warumbe).”46 The non-duality of love of God. Dividing mystics into intellective and affective categories rarely provides much insight into their teaching. adopted the Aristotelian teaching on knowing as the identification of knower and known in the one act of understanding. as Eckhart puts it. But God is indistinct. and therefore the way in which one should love him is without a way. that is. God is an intellect and understanding and his understanding itself is the foundation of his existence.42 The goal of Eckhart’s teaching is to help his listeners become aware of the indistinct union with God always present in the depth (grunt) of the soul.45 The pure love that we direct to God is different from the love we give to creatures.54 the affective and intellective dimensions that are integral to mysticism. according to Eckhart.1 . as much as distinction. God can be spoken of as Absolute Unity.

and Holy Spirit. The Carthusian Vincent of Aggsbach had attacked Cusa for teaching that both love and knowledge played important roles in the path to union. sees.” Cusa says. 1461). that is. and loves. Humanity. the perfect image identical with the Word. is also present in us. “In every love by which a person is carried into God. To be united. it is creatable. is to be one with God. other than God. Cusa sent several letters to his friends in the monastery at Tegernsee who had become caught up in the debate. is what it is through intellect. unlike Thomas. to be attached to it. to be one.then the divine self-reflection.49 In Eckhart’s view the infinite receptivity of the intellect as intellect is the ground of mystical consciousness. as Thomas taught. insisted that the human mind exists on two levels: on the virtual. insisting that the Dionysian writings demonstrated that in true mystical theology (although not in the lower stages of contemplation) intellect must be discarded so that God may be attained in the apex affectus. In the silence and stillness of perfect interiority God works in the passive intellect not by bestowing knowledge of any-thing. but the Cardinal’s mystical masterpiece. “The eye in which I see God is the same eye in which God sees me. explaining that both love and knowledge played necessary roles.” as Eckhart says in Sermon XXIX. went on to explore the nature of God as “not-other.” and even wrote a treatise on this approach to the divine mystery in his last years. is to be united to God. Every kind of existence that is outside or beyond intellect is a creature. “because intellect is open to infinity.”48 Eckhart. the treatise On the Vision of God (De visione dei). In God there is nothing other” (In deo enim non est aliud). sees. . the “complete return” (reditio completa) that constitutes God as a Trinity of Father. and is not God. “knowledge enters in. it is not Cusa’s The Not-Other (De Non-Aliud) that I wish to look at.”51 One of Eckhart’s keenest readers. for she clearly recognizes ‘that he is.” or indistinction. or pre-existent. the traditional textbook of mystical theology. . In this context. . On the virtual level the intellect is not just no material thing and therefore capable of receiving the forms of all material things. more specifically in the Dionysian writings. is the only act of understanding that truly exists. Son. “Therefore. “to rise up to intellect. but by a “learned ignorance. Nicholas of Cusa (d. but God who knows. but it is no-thing at all in its complete identity with God. in the human mind as true imago dei. or loves.’ but she does not know ‘what’ or ‘how’ he is.” a “notknowing” that draws the soul “into amazement and keeps her on the hunt. according to Eckhart. and also on the actual level of created existence as made ad imaginem. This divine “No-thing-ness. as Eckhart says in several sermons. Rather. however.52 Cusa was moved to write this work because of a quarrel over the relation of love and knowledge in the ascent to God. although it does 55 McGinn | Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal .”50 On this level the created self vanishes so that it is no longer “I” who thinks. level in God as imago dei.

though infused with an affective impetus reminiscent of Augustine’s Confessions. In late 1453 he sent On the Vision of God to the monks at Tegernsee with instructions of how to engage in “a very simple and commonplace method” designed to lead them “experientially into the most sacred darkness” of mystical theology. or a learned ignorance. He also engages in a detailed investigation of the divine nature as Absolute Infinity (infinitas absoluta). Toward the end of the first section. who are the hidden God. however. in its exploration of mystical consciousness. After introducing the practical exercise of a procession before an all-seeing icon of the face of Jesus. Cusa explores the meaning of visio dei understood as both our seeing God and God’s seeing us through a series of meditations on the dialectical nature of such vision (Chaps. is your seeing. this is not the case in human subjects. seeing): “What other. such as the “wall of paradise” (murus paradisi). a coincidence of knowledge and ignorance. Cusa’s mystical summa takes up many issues. In this first part of the treatise Cusa’s language. as well as in the shorter second and third parts. O Lord. is predominantly intellective. even that of the coincidence of opposites. He then turns to the necessarily trinitarian nature of God revealed in the proper understanding of vision (Chaps. that is. as well as a series of new symbols. only the love revealed in the doctrine of the Trinity will enable him to leap over the wall to meet God in wordless SPIRITUS | 8. 17–18). than your being seen by me? In seeing me you. he used the opportunity to reflect on the nature of mysticism through a series of meditations on the theme of what it means to see God.”53 Cusa did not merely try to answer attacks. give yourself to be seen by me. True to the position laid out in his earlier letters. The long first part of the treatise may be conceived of as Cusa’s exploration of the ocular identity summarized in the Eckhartian statement quoted above. 19–26).”54 While knowing and loving are identical in God. Cusa now claims that the coincidence of opposites (coincidentia oppositorum) is not the goal of the journey to God. Cusa teaches that God’s infinity is present to us as the deep reality of all our acts of knowing (that is. then. Going beyond the position adopted in On Learned Ignorance. when you look upon me with the eye of mercy. and the role of filiation.56 not know the essence that it loves. he explicitly takes up the relation of loving and knowing.1 . If intellect has helped bring the mystic to this point. but is only the limit of all conceptual thinking found at the wall of paradise. how the Son of God made flesh is our archetype for achieving union with God (Chaps. the barrier to all human cognition. or perhaps better. Cusa insists that making use of our capacity to know is necessary for approaching the God who lies beyond both affirmation and negation. not least that of the modes of knowing and loving involved in seeing God. The Cardinal expounds this in terms of his central theme of learned ignorance set forth in his earlier On Learned Ignorance (De docta ignorantia) of 1440. supra-intellective. 4–16). There is.

1591) also reflected deeply on the role of knowing and loving in the path to union with God.”55 So. . . understanding. which remains hidden after it is found. The nearer the intellect approaches. . Late in the treatise he summarizes his position in the language of prayer: “O Christ. and will are transformed through the purifying. © Josh Gardner. . declares: “I perceive that the distinction between the one who loves and the lovable exists inside the wall of the coincidence of unity and otherness. love does indeed go beyond knowledge. our Savior. John of the Cross (d.”56 57 Accelerator. speaking in the voice of a monastic contemplative. the more it is given increase in power. though Cusa takes care to underline that both are necessary.57 John’s examination of how the thinking and loving subject attains union with God at first glance appears dualistic in the way in which he separates the sensual from the spiritual aspects of the soul and constructs two different accounts of knowing and loving. .rapture in the garden of paradise. the more it loves. Cusa. Yet that which the eye sees it can neither name nor understand. although the eye looks beyond into paradise. illuminating. In Chapter 17. by love it is united to it. For the wall shuts out the power of every intellect. By faith the intellect approaches the Word. for what it sees is the eye’s secret love and a hidden treasure. and unifying power of mystical grace. He insists that the knowing that begins in the physical senses and produces natural knowledge of and love for created realities through the activa- McGinn | Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal . the more it is established in the light of the Word. you have taught two things only: faith and love. specifically on the way in which the faculties of memory.

In order to know and love God in reality. . John therefore is now in a position to analyze the new mystical knowing and loving that parallel natural knowing and loving and make use of the same faculties. take their respective roles in the new mystical consciousness. but now as moved by God from within and not by sense perception from without. for it is itself that union. It remembers them through the effect of light. since its object is the Supreme Principle.” that is. . intellect. The knowledge of God that becomes gradually available during this purgative process is general.1 . All such knowledge and desire must be purged in the long and difficult journey inward set out in detail in the Ascent to Mount Carmel and the Dark Night of the Soul. teaches that the inner faculties must be emptied and put to rest so that God can work directly from within. the goal to which we are guiding the soul. and so on. produced in it. An important aspect of such analyses is the relation SPIRITUS | 8. It consists of a certain touch of the divinity produced in the soul. Book two of the Ascent describes it this way: “This divine knowledge of God never deals with particular things. like Eckhart. delight. so too in spiritual knowing the soul’s inner power of feeling present in its very substance stores the divine touches so that they can be remembered and enjoyed. John. love. Son. and will in their spiritual operations. one cannot express it in particular terms unless a truth about something less than God is seen together with knowledge of him.60 The caverns function like the bodily senses in ordinary knowing. intellect. . in the depths of the faculties of memory. John of the Cross saw the threefold powers of the human subject as an image of the Trinity of Father. but especially in the Living Flame of Love. . that is.”61 Other passages analyze how the other two powers. Something of this effect is renewed as often as the soul recalls them. intellect. and thus it is God himself who is experienced and tasted there. image.59 The divine touches are felt in what John calls “the deep caverns of feeling.”58 The “certain touch” (cierto toque) of divinity that John speaks of here is a spiritual and formless infusion into the substance of the soul that effects a reorientation of the three essential powers of memory. Throughout his works. and Holy Spirit. and will.58 tion of the inner senses and the powers of memory. Consequently. or figure that may have been impressed on the soul. This sublime knowledge can be received only by a person who has arrived at union with God. he analyzed the trinitarian nature of mystical consciousness. Just as the images received from the bodily senses are stored in the interior senses of fantasy and common sense in natural knowing. not particular. those of intellect and will. In the Ascent to Mount Carmel John described the role of reoriented memory in this new form of consciousness: “The communications of this knowledge [of the Creator] are touches and spiritual feelings of union with God. and spiritual renewal. . and will can never attain God. . The memory does not recall these through any form. it is not objectifiable as a concept.

John always insists that the soul remains a created reality. many of the treatments centering on experience will be worth pondering in order to help enrich our understanding of mysticism. and also perhaps than Cusa. “The three faculties are distinct from the substance of the soul while also.63 The key is that “The soul’s center is God. Despite the wide range of understandings given to that slippery term. or ground) and the ordinary human knowing and loving that the mystic must still employ in daily life. nevertheless. embracing experience but also extending beyond it. unified in this subsistence.64 The more that the soul penetrates into the center.”62 The trinitarian basis of John’s view of mystical consciousness is the root of its Christological dimension—the union of the divine and human natures in the person of the Word is both the exemplar and source for how the mystic unifies the divine way of knowing and loving present in the “center of the soul” (John’s equivalent of Eckhart’s grunt. on a deeper level. the operative fusion of divine and human activities in mystical consciousness. the reception of the gift of God’s presence in feeling. but now in a transformed fashion. The argument advanced here is that the category of consciousness. or basic inner experience. the conclusion emerges that a more extensive analysis of the full range of the activities of the human subject as they are transformed and reoriented through the presence of God acting directly within the subject will help us gain deeper understanding of the mystical encounter between God and human. aspect of the human subject as imago Dei. as well as from a consideration of the historical evidence of how three significant mystics understood the role of both knowing and loving in their encounters with God in Part II. Both from the theoretical perspective of consciousness analysis set out in Part I. While John can sometimes echo Eckhart’s and Cusa’s strong formulations of identity. the more its activity becomes a divine activity. but mirrors the relation between the three persons of the Trinity and the Godhead. may provide a more helpful way of investigating mysticism and its relation to spirituality. 59 McGinn | Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal . This approach seeks to avoid the danger involved in restricting the “real” mystical element of religion to the first level of consciousness. The substance is not some fourth. he is more attentive to the importance of ongoing distinction than Eckhart was. It also critiques views of mystical consciousness that tend to emphasize the affective dimension of direct contact with God to the detriment of the intellective aspect. deeper. that is.between the three faculties and the substance of the soul. As Edward Howells puts it. that is.” as John says in the Living Flame of Love. By Way of Conclusion There is no doubt that explorations of the nature of mystical experience will continue to be produced by students of different religious traditions and diverse disciplines.

” held at the Carmelite Retreat Center at Zidine (Bosnia and Herzegovina). trans. 8. by E. Western Perspectives and Dialogue with Japanese Thinkers (Albany: SUNY Press. and Mystical Consciousness. For James on mysticism. This form of the essay. 2. Michael Oakeshott. The paper was also delivered as the Roland Bainton Lecture at Yale Divinity School on October 16. 4. See. quoted from The Life of Teresa of Jesus.” Religious Studies 1 (1965): 75–87. and published in the Cahiers Parisiens/Parisian Notebooks 3 (2007): 110–30.” in L’Homme devant Dieu: Mélanges offerts au Pere Henri de Lubac. entitled “The Dynamic Structure of Mystical Consciousness. 433. Some of the ideas were first put forth in a paper entitled “Reflections on the Mystical Self. NY: Doubleday. Dreyer and Mark S. This point deserves emphasis. Taiwan. Mysticism and Philosophy (New York and London: Macmillan. For a short history of the term mysticus and its derivatives. ed.P. ed. My case is that mystical consciousness as a category already can perform this function and therefore deserves a hearing. “Interpretation and Mystical Experience. 9. see Bernard McGinn. 1997). I have modified the essay for the readership of Spiritus.P. 7.’” held at Fu Jen Catholic University. NY: Doubleday. 2007. O. For examples of this approach. “Conclusions. and Ninian Smart. 3. Experience and its Modes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985). I do not intend to rule out the possibility of more developed and nuanced conceptions of mystical experience that would address the problems found in many of prior uses. 1960).10. 1960). The Study of Christian Spirituality. Among those who argue this case are some thinkers who employ the cognitional theory of Bernard Lonergan. 2007.” will appear among the conference papers to be published under the title The Experience of God Today and Carmelite Mysticism. The Autobiography of St. March 3–4.” in Minding the Spirit.” The Journal of Religion 59 (1979): 56–70. September 17–22. Stace. James. 60 SPIRITUS | 8. Finally.” 501–04. Richard Woods. 119. 1964) 2: 267–91. see Don Browning. Phenomenology and Critique (Toronto: University of Toronto. (Paris: Aubier. Louis Roy. Exploring Unseen Worlds: William James and the Philosophy of Mysticism (Albany: SUNY. Mystagogy and Inter-Religious and Cultural Dialog. 3 vols.. see Louis Bouyer. 9. Elizabeth A. November 2–3. 10. The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Penguin Classics. This form of the essay will be published in Fu Jen International Journal of Religious Studies. “William James’s Philosophy of Mysticism. This essay has been developed in several venues. and G. I want to thank the organizers of these conferences and lectureships for the opportunity to present my views. 2007. see Michel de Certeau.” held at the University of Chicago Center in Paris. 11. reprint 2002). and then at the “International Conference on ‘Mystical Experience: Communication between God and Man. 42–55. 1980). William Barnard. Taipei. “‘Mystique’ au XVIIe siècle: Le problème du language mystique. The longer form that is the basis for this essay was first delivered at the International Seminar on “The Experience of God Today and Carmelite Mysticism.” given at the Conference “Le Soi/The Self. Life 1. as well as all those whose questions and comments helped me to clarify my argument. O. On the creation of “mysticism” (la mystique in French). Teresa of Avila. 12. 25–41. 2005). T. “The Letter and the Spirit: Spirituality as an Academic Discipline.1 . for example. (Garden City. 2003). 431. see. 2006. William James. 6. For reflections on the history of the term spirituality. which will also be utilized in my own account.” in Understanding Mysticism. 5. “Mysticism: An Essay on the History of a Word. Allison Peers (Garden City. Teresa of Avila.notes 1. Transcendent Experiences. Varieties. profiting from the remarks of two anonymous reviewers. 2001). W. Borroughs (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1933.

14. 1980). A Study of Human Understanding (London: Longmans. Among these works. 13 (see also 61–62). see “Lonergan and the Foundation of Contemporary Mystical Theology. See his De constitutione Christi ontologica et psychologica (Rome: Gregorian University. judging. 109. 175–78. 38. The Reintegration of Theology and Mysticism. 1959). In later works he admitted that this “proof” depended on religious conversion and was therefore not a universal argument for all. and the essay “Christ as Subject: A Reply. “Typologies and the Cross-Cultural Analysis of Mysticism. 107. see especially James Robertson Price III. 28. 1987). Bernard Lonergan. S. but because his theory insists that the operations of understanding.J. “On the Feeling of Presence in Mystics and Non-Mystics” (55–145). S. A Key Word in Spirituality. His fundamental work is Insight. Method. Lonergan. 23. For a discussion. Lonergan. Timothy P. Philosophy of God and Theology. Important for understanding Lonergan’s view of consciousness is his distinction between the objectivist view of “consciousness as perception” and his own insistence on “consciousness as experience. 1957). See also the essay. 1968). Method. The importance of the category of presence in mysticism was argued by Joseph Maréchal. Logernan. 111–13. Augustine.” in Collection. 27. 11–14. and Philip Boo Riley (Albany: SUNY Press.. self-presence. especially Chap. Transformation. ed. 15.” Studies in Formative Spirituality 11 (1990): 195–201. 19. 16. especially Essay II. 122–23. Method. 163–95.” Lonergan Workshop 5. The Philosophy of God and Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster. will not be directly analyzed here. in his Studies in the Psychology of the Mystics (Albany: Magi Books. Lonergan. see. ed.13. and 18–20.. Lonergan. 104–07. Method. I will use consciousness in this wider sense here. 25. and 122–23. 130–34. “Lonergan on Consciousness: Is There a Fifth Level?. Philosophy of God and Theology. Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New York: New Directions. 106).” Studies in Spirituality 8 (1998): 5–37. Confessions. 221–39. Lonergan. 18. and Lonergan. Thomas Merton.” that is. Fred Lawrence (Chico: Scholars Press. xii. Papers by Bernard Lonergan (New York: Herder & Herder. Philosophy of God and Theology. A Dialectical Analysis of Bernard Lonergan’s Theological Method and the Mystical Experience of Symeon the New Theologian (Chicago: University of Chicago Ph. On the issue of the fifth level.” in Religion and Culture: Essays in Honor of Bernard Lonergan.6. and “Transcendence and Images: The Apophatic and the Kataphatic Revisited. for example.” Method. In Chapter XIX of Insight Lonergan developed this co-presence of primary Intelligibility and Being in human intentionality as an argument for the existence of God.J. Price has also published several essays on mysticism utilizing Lonergan’s thought. Dissertation.D. 1985). S. A Journal in Lonerganian Studies 12 (1994): 1–36. Lonergan at times speaks of consciousness as “just experience” (Method. Lonergan set out his transcendental method briefly in Method in Theology (New York: Herder & Herder. 22.” in Collection. Fallon. 1972). 21. 1964: French original 1926–37). and deciding are also conscious activities whose self-presence can be objectified by “applying the operations as intentional to the operations as conscious” (Method.J.. Lonergan. 1973). Lonergan. 9–15). see Michael Vertin. Method. see Kees Waaijman. Method. 29. 24. The question is reminiscent of the Neoscholastic debates of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries over whether mystical states were intensifications of the grace given 61 McGinn | Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal . “Transformation. “Cognitional Structure. 17. 3. 20. 181–90. a central theme in mystical writings. 26. 1972). 1. 8–10. 123. 74.

38–39. Method. 29 (DW 2: 80).” 198–99. 1994). The general acceptance of the former view has had important ramifications for late-twentieth Roman Catholic theology of mysticism. 1. I argue. n. Pr. 32. “Sermo XXIX. Eckhart. 282 (LW 2: 614–15). see also Sermo XXIV. embraces both dimensions. Sells. SPIRITUS | 8. On the relation between the affective and the noetic levels.) 28 (DW 2: 59). ed. Roy. For a sketch of the relations of love and knowledge in mysticism. Die deutschen und lateinischen Werke. 2003). 105–06. Method. Knowledge and Unio mystica in the Western Christian Tradition. see Bernard McGinn. and volume and page). 4 (LW 5: 40). Sermo XXIX. n. 39. 40. Herausgegeben im Auftrage der deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer. Quaestiones Parisienses q.” Cîteaux 31 (1980): 373–86. 36. 250 (LW 4: 229). 59–86. “St. For some reflections on love in Eckhart’s mysticism and how the Dominican used the love language of Bernard of Clairvaux. Lonergan. 31.2. Philosophy of God and Theology. 46–48. 1996). Georg Steer and Loris Sturlese (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer. Similar forms of supra-logical discourse can be found in Eckhart and many other masters of apophatic language. 112 (LW 4: 105). and Islam. 43.” in Mystical Union in Judaism. I have chosen these three mystics because they attempt to give due attention to both knowing and loving. A choice of other figures (for example.30. Price has noted an ambiguity in Lonergan’s account here and suggests distinguishing two moments in religious experience: the gift of God’s love poured out upon the subject and the state of “being in love with God. n. Augustine. Lonergan. and Die lateinischen Werke (hereafter LW with paragraph number [n. Christianity. 33. 41. The edition is divided into two sections: Die deutschen Werke (hereafter DW with volume and page number). “Love. see Bernard McGinn. Christian and Islamic mysticism is Michael A. The “symphonic” truth of the Christian mystical tradition. 42. 205–32. 27 (DW 2: 45–46). Price. 38. and Pr. Mystical Consciousness. 35. Lonergan. The account that follows makes use in part of materials on John of the Cross in “Reflections on the Mystical Self.” the human response to the gift which must express itself in particular acts intending specific objects. or Julian of Norwich) would produce a somewhat different picture. Letter 117. 62 34. see “Lonergan and the Foundation of a Contemporary Mystical Theology. Method.]. German Sermon (Pr.1 . Lonergan. Eckhart. see Bernard McGinn. 1936). ‘Deus unus est. Chapter 10. Sermo XI. 19–25. 37. stressing love and cataphatic language more than intellect and the apophatic dimension. 188.’” in Lectura Eckhardi II. 49. Lonergan. Eckhart. Transcendental Experience. 50. to all believers or special gifts meant only for the few. Bernard and Meister Eckhart. An Ecumenical Dialogue. 342. 266. An insightful study based on pagan. Eckhart. Insight. The passage cited is from Eckhart’s Expositio in Sapientiam n. 45. 82 (DW 3: 431). Roy.” 123–27. Eckhart. Pr. edd.” 167. Meister Eckhart’s works will be cited according to the critical edition: Meister Eckhart. 46.1 (LW 4: 53). n. Eckhart. Moshe Idel and Bernard McGinn (New York: Continuum. Mystical Consciousness. 304 (LW 4: 270). For a treatment of Sermo XXIX and Eckhart’s view of intellect. 47. 48. 44. See also Latin sermon (Sermo) VI. All translations are my own. Mystical Languages of Unsaying (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. “Transcendence and Images. Nicholas of Cusa’s reflections on the nature of docta ignorantia explicitly reject the application of ordinary logic to the realm of learned ignorance and its coincidentia oppositorum. Bernard of Clairvaux. see Roy.

Nicholas of Cusa. Eckhart. 12 (DW 1: 201). 271. See also 18. Nicholas of Cusa. DC: ICS Publications. 2006). De visione dei.. Ascent of Mount Carmel. and Edward Howells.50. 51. 26–34.26. O. Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism (New York: Random House. 5. ed. For a more detailed investigation of Cusa’s De visione dei. 269). See the analysis in Howells. See also Pr.. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. 445–56. Mémoire et espérence chez Jean de la Croix (Paris: Beauchesne. The Harvest of Mysticism in Medieval Germany (1300–1500) (New York: Herder & Herder. 63. Ascent of Mount Carmel. DC: Catholic University Press. nn. 2005). see Bernard McGinn.D. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Cusa. Peter J. John of the Cross. see especially André Bord. Living Flame of Love. The Legacy of Learned Ignorance. Letter of September 22. For more detail on the Tegernsee debates on mysticism.. 2006). Casarella (Washington.. 62. John of the Cross. 60. O. 63 McGinn | Mystical Consciousness: A Modest Proposal . 33. 1991). 24.. 17. John of the Cross. 3. 59. Howells. Pr. Eckhart. 1997). 61.. 1971). 57. 3. 58. Living Flame of Love.12 (trans.99–100. using the translation of Kieran Kavanaugh.113 (trans. Nicholas of Cusa’s De visione Dei in the History of Western Mysticism.75 (trans. 64. De visione dei. 1452. 53. ed.C.14. as translated in Bernard McGinn. On mystical transformation in John of the Cross. see Bernard McGinn. Lawrence Bond. 26–53. 506–09 (LW 3: 437–41). For a more detailed account of how this takes place. Mystical Knowing and Selfhood (New York: Crossroad. where this passage is found on 241. The Collected Works of John of the Cross (Washington.” in Cusanus. For the quotations from this treatise I will use the translation of H. 101 (DW 4: 360–61). 76 (DW 3: 320–21). Pr. 2002).5. 54.2 (trans. 286). Selected Spiritual Writings (New York: Paulist Press. where this passage is found on 246–47. 645). “Seeing and Not Seeing.69. De visione dei.D.81 and 21. 1. John of the Cross. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. and Eckhart’s Expositio in Evangelium secundum Iohannem. Chapter 3.C. Nicholas of Cusa. 55. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila.13. 52. Cusa. and Otilio Rodriguez. 2. 290). 56.. see Howells.